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The Cost of Doing Business
Squirrels and deer and the endless circles.
In December, we go back into the woods. Maple sugaring is, in the simplest terms, the art and science of walking in circles. To be a masterful sugarmaker, one must always choose which circle to walk on which day, perfectly select the tools and comforts to carry on the journey, carefully observe all elements of the meticulously constructed series of tubes and pipes that make up the chosen circle, decide whether there are problems to be fixed and — this, really, is where the art becomes a science, or the science an art, I’m not sure which — determine a fix for the problem that costs less to execute than the cost of the problem itself.
In our sugarbush, the sap that flows from each of the holes we drill into the maples each winter goes through a head-spinning logistical, scientific and economic process in order to be converted into $8. Each tree must, at a minimum, be tapped in the winter and then revisited in the spring with a large, specialized crowbar that removes the tap and allows the tree tissue to begin its years-long healing process. Those visits, on the margin, cost a handful of cents apiece for the labor carrying the tools, plus a few pennies for each plastic tap and something shy of $100 a year in equipment dropped in the winter woods with slim hope of recovery (a burden shared across — or more accurately, between — our thousands of taps).
This addition gives the impression of a mighty fat margin in the syrup business, but ignores the facts of squirrels and deer. There is no equation one can put into a spreadsheet cell that shows how far the squirrels and deer will eat into the margins made on that $8 for each tree.
If a squirrel leaves his home in the roots of a great maple and finds, in his driveway to the road system of twigs and branches above, a strange obstruction, it is only natural to investigate. If, on investigating, he finds the sweet smell of dried sap coating the obstruction, it is only natural to taste the obstruction and see if it is, in fact, a gift of food. If therein lies a sweet pocket of sun-baked sap, well then it’s only natural to feast.
When a young deer wanders through a patch of young forest, it has no use for the ancient maple. Unlike the cows that once found precious shade under this lonely maple in their pasture, this deer seeks only the tasty precursors to spring’s bloom. Shade needn’t be sought out in a forest any more than sun in a pasture. A young beech, sending branches in any direction but an orderly one, draws the deer’s focus with its sharp buds served up just a couple feet off the ground. But there is an obstruction. A branch? Well, no, it won’t allow the deer to push past and access that beech. Blocking a growing fawn from a beech? The deer knows now that this is no natural thing and, motivated still by the woody green morsels on the other side, gnaws in frustration at the obstruction. And it gives way! The beech becomes lunch, the sap line forgotten already.
A squirrel’s feast or a deer’s lunch is a sugarmaker’s job security; no matter how recently one has finished walking those largest of maple sugaring circles through the woods hammering taps into trees, a squirrel has more recently found a delectable obstruction in his driveway to the forest canopy, or a deer’s desire for browsable buds has overpowered some piece of our network of small annoyances. There are more holes in the sap lines, each threatening, if left alone, to drip from its tattered end the pennies and dollars of all trees uphill. And so when we finish walking in circles, drill in hand, tapping trees, we rest and we empty our bags of spare taps and snipped, tattered ends of sap tubing and then we refill them with long coils of fresh, blue tubing and more than enough connectors to splice the chews.
Then we go back to the woods and we walk in circles. The trees are tapped and silent under a blanket of winter snow as we heave and toil, racing the frozen sap to the holes in the lines so that we may balance the unknowable equation in our spreadsheet that tells us the cost of doing business with nature.